Photographer Emma Khoo sets her sights on transforming the industry and fashion norms

OVER the past seven or eight years, Emma Khoo has left a mark on the photography scene at home and abroad, particularly in London, where she pursued architecture.

With a keen eye for capturing and telling stories about women, the photographer’s works have been published in a large array of international publications.

Emma has also displayed her work at several exhibitions. The last exhibition was under Women Photographer’s Malaysia at the KL Photography Festival 2020.

“I stumbled into photography in my second year of architecture school. It was very funny how it came about because it started with pain and loss. I had tenosynovitis during my first year in architecture school,” she told theSun.

The injury, which is a form of tendonitis, forced her to step back and stop doing the practical aspects of architecture, and turn towards an academic route.

Having her hands figuratively taken away from her, Emma needed a creative outlet that was far removed from architecture, and photography became her form of therapy.

“I started with model friends and a basic camera. The initial year that I started photography was very difficult because I was not only struggling to find my identity, I also felt like a part of me was gone. My hands weren’t working the way I wanted them to”.

For seven years after she picked up photography, she kept at it when she could spare the time, until the pandemic happened.

$!Three Graces,

Behind the lenses

From the early years of learning and trying her hand at photography, Emma eventually settled on her bread-and-butter form of photography – women empowerment and diversity.

On why she honed in on something so specific to focus her talents, Emma said although it did not start that way, it was always subconsciously there.

“Being in London, I was exposed to so many amazing women creators, who were very multifaceted. Being in that creative community really inspired me to push the boundaries and redefine what beauty meant,” she said.

When she came back to Malaysia, Emma noticed that the situation here was not similar to the UK.

“When I was there, they were already beginning to push for models of colour, along with modeling agencies which catered to that. They also celebrated women of any size and age. I feel like this narrative is really lacking here,” Emma said.

“The standard is being challenged by amazing creators here, I will not deny that. But we are still far behind, and I think that was when I became more aware of it as I worked with models here and the UK”.

Emma revealed that even she gets a little restricted at times when publishing with fashion magazines, as there are usually in-house model standards.

“I really want to quash that,” she stressed.

“In Malaysia, when I’m working on personal projects, I try to use a variety of models ... any colour, any race, anything. I just want someone who can vibe with me and understand the concept I’m trying to deliver, and nail it by being in-character. That’s the nuance and main criterion that I use. I just wish I could have done more.”

$!Emma is currently experimenting with makeup and costumes as her photography has been put on hold.

The road forward

Due to Covid-19, photography for her has taken an extended hiatus.

As the medium was Emma’s outlet to share her joy, opinions and pain, having it taken away from her momentarily has been very painful.

“I wouldn’t say it’s because of Covid. There are a lot of photographers out there now struggling to make ends meet because of the restrictions. I am blessed not to have this kind of struggle. For me, the frustration hits differently because photography has been a part of me for seven years, so it’s like losing myself again. And I had a lot of losses to overcome,” she said.

Last year, Emma had a relapse and it was frustrating as she could not do as she wanted to.

To deal with that frustration, she decided that since she was staying at home and could not go out, she would work on her PhD thesis and experiment with makeup.

“I’d like to say I’m a PhD student all week but a content creator on Sunday,” Emma said, drawing a distinction between her fyi.khoo and accounts on Instagram.

“I feel more liberated. It’s quite strange. I didn’t lose photography because I still use the skills, like editing, taking pictures, styling and doing makeup. It’s a different sense of liberation compared to photography”.

In that sense, Emma says she is at peace with herself.

“I don’t know how long this will go on for, but as long as Covid is around and I’m doing my PhD, photography will have to wait. Instead, self-portraits and makeup are here to stay.”